How groundwater is saving California farmers during drought

America Abroad

Steve Arthur has been in the well-drilling business for decades and says he’s never seen anything quite like what’s happening now in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

“People just call and say, ‘Put me on the list.’ I can’t keep up with the demand, “ Arthur says. “I met with two customers yesterday, and ended up with eight wells.  It’s officially getting crazy.”

Business has been running like that since late in 2013, when it became apparent that California’s fall rains would not arrive. The previous two years had been drier than normal throughout the state, and now California was headed deep into drought.

With little water running into the state’s network of reservoirs, officials who run the massive federal and state water projects that channel to districts serving 25 million people and millions of acres of farmland cut deliveries to almost nothing this year. That’s forced farmers large and small to idle hundreds of thousands of acres and turn to groundwater pumping to make it through the drought.  

The price that some operations are paying to get at that groundwater is staggering.

Bob Zimmerer is another Fresno County well contractor and gives us a tour of a site where one of his crews is drilling a well nearly half a mile deep.

“This is roughly going to be a 700,000-dollar well, and then it’s going to be a 200,000-dollar pump,” he says. “Basically it’s a million-dollar investment to drill this well.”

In year of normal rain, California would get 30 percent to 40 percent of its total water supply from groundwater. A report commissioned by the nonprofit California Water Foundation says that this year, that figure will be much higher, perhaps as high as 65 percent. All that pumping is expected to limit widely feared losses in the state’s farm production. But even as he drills well after well, Zimmerer says this can’t go on.

“Sooner or later, the skies will open up and we will get some rain,” he says. “We  just hope it’s sooner than later, because at this point and time, we don’t want to keep going, because the underground aquifer can’t sustain this much. We all know that. It’s more of a temporary fix.

Decades of heavy pumping from hundreds of aquifers in the Central Valley and other regions of the state have already taken a toll. Water levels have declined sharply and many wells have run dry. Across thousands of square miles, the valley’s surface has subsided -- the term used to describe a slow process of collapse as aquifers have been drawn down. That subsidence reduces the capacity of the aquifers to recharge during wet years.

Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist and professor of earth system sciences at the University of California-Irvine, is one of those who says the prolonged pumping is threatening permanent harm to the state’s water supply.  

“We are on a one-way trajectory towards depletion,” he says, “towards running out of groundwater in the Central Valley.”

Famiglietti uses a familiar metaphor to illustrate what’s happening to Central Valley groundwater.

“You have a bank account. It starts at a certain value, and you start using that money in your bank account. You only put in a little bit, but you take out a heck of a lot more. And that’s exactly what we’re doing in the Central Valley,” he says. “We have a little bit of replenishment and a lot of depletion. Most of that depletion happens during drought, and that’s why I’m concerned about this particular drought, because it’s worse than ever.”

Merced County, also in the San Joaquin Valley, is one of many places where depletion is a concern. There, the issue has come to the fore because of a plan by two big farming operations to pump as much as 8 billion gallons of water out of ground over the next two years and send it to the Del Puerto Water District, 50 miles away.

Louis Bandoni was among a large contingent of farmers who came to a meeting of the Merced County Board in May to tells supervisors why they should, or shouldn’t, allow the groundwater mining project to go ahead.

For Bandoni and others from areas near the pumping operation, the concern is having wells dry up. This year, Bandoni told the board, he’s seen one of his wells drop 15 feet. “We’re headed into areas we’ve never experienced before,” he said.

But the farmers who want to buy the mined water, including almond growers trying to save their trees, have been cut off from their normal reservoir supply. “We’re in crisis mode,” Del Puerto district general manager Anthea Hanson told the board. “I have trees I need to keep alive. We don’t need large quantities of water to do that. If that doesn’t happen, the trees are gone.”

Steve Sloan, one of the farmers who wants to pump the groundwater and sell it, stands to make millions of dollars if the deal is approved. But he says the agreement is really for the good of all the farmers in the area.

“We don’t want to damage the aquifer,” Sloan said. “We don’t want to damage our neighbors. But we do want to see agriculture in Merced County survive. And the way we do that is by co-operating.”

No final decision has been made on the Merced County groundwater mining. A similar but much larger proposal in the Sacramento Valley has been delayed by a lawsuit.

Many of those immersed in Central Valley water issues say the rush to drill new wells and the virtually uncontrolled groundwater pumping reflects the fact that unlike many other western states, California has done little to require systematic management of one of its most vital resources.

“We don’t know how much groundwater there is,” says Jerry Cadagan, a retired water lawyer and self-described water activist. “We don’t know when it’ll run out when we start pumping. It’s scary because we don’t know in any given area of the state, or any given aquifer, or groundwater basin.  We don’t know when we’re going to basically reach bottom.”

Historically, individual farmers and the state’s powerful agricultural industry together have fought state regulation for years, fearing they could lose control of an indispensable resource. But amid concern about the current drought’s long-term impact, momentum is building for change.

Bills in the state Legislature and new proposals from both farm and city water users and policy experts would give local water districts better tools and more authority to make sure groundwater is efficiently managed. One set of proposals comes from the California Water Foundation, a nonprofit policy group headed by Lester Snow. He’s the former head of both the state’s Department of Water Resources and its Resources Agency, and he says the local focus of the current round of groundwater proposals is crucial.  

“That’s really the thrust,” he says. “Empowering the locals, and then having a state framework where if necessary the state can take regulatory action.  But if you lead with regulatory, we’ll probably just be in the courts for a long time.”

Another major groundwater management plan comes from the Association of California Water Agencies, an organization that includes more than 400 farm and city water districts. Both of the proposals focus on defining what should be in sustainable groundwater plans and giving local agencies more authority and better tools to implement them.

Snow says that the state’s drought crisis has created an opportunity for movement on the issue, and adds that those who have resisted  groundwater management now see they have something to lose.

“The basic issue in play here is, and we’re seeing this happen all across the state, is that absent a regulatory structure, people’s property rights and water rights are being impacted and diminished daily,” Snow says.

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